The Rio Grande Valley community - including a large throng of white-coated Physician Assistant (PA) Program and pharmacy students at The University of Texas-Pan American - enthusiastically welcomed the new medical school dean Dr. Francisco Fernandez to the campus Feb. 26. His visit followed one to the University of Texas at Brownsville where the founding dean was also introduced.
"To be founding dean is a once in a lifetime opportunity and one I am proud to pledge to you all my efforts and dedication," said Fernandez, who called the two universities excellent resources from which to develop a medical school. "I promise you ... I will not let you down."
Fernandez, 62, and a native of Havana, Cuba, is returning to Texas after an 18-year absence. He was a faculty member at UT MD Anderson Cancer Center and Baylor College of Medicine from 1984 to 1997, with an appointment to the faculty of UT Health Science Center-Houston as well. He joined Loyola University of Chicago in 1997 and the University of South Florida in 2002, serving both as the chair of psychiatry. In Tampa, he directed the university's Institute for Research in Psychiatry and Neurosciences. Fernandez is an expert in the brain's relationship to behavior and currently serves as first vice president of the American College of Psychiatrists. He was recipient of the Simón Bolivar award of the American Psychiatric Association for his work in Hispanic communities.
Cigarroa expressed his confidence in Fernandez's leadership, saying he had arrived at a "most important" time in the timeline of education for South Texas and the Rio Grande Valley as the two universities unite.
Fernandez, who will begin his position April 28, will report initially to Dr. Francisco González-Scarano, dean of the School of Medicine and vice president for medical affairs at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (UTHSCSA), as well as the UT System's executive vice chancellor of health affairs, Dr. Ray Greenberg. Once UTRGV becomes an independent entity, Fernandez will report to the new UTRGV provost and president and Greenberg.
Greenberg praised the vision of Cigarroa, the work of Greenberg's predecessor, Dr. Kenneth Shine, and the support of UTHSCSA to help develop the new medical school's program and recruitment of initial faculty and the new dean. Greenberg said UTHSCSA's recent successful reaccreditation process incorporated an entirely new medical school curriculum that will serve as the basis to the development of the new medical school's curriculum.
González-Scarano, who described the nationally competitive search and selection process, said Fernandez, one of four finalists, had the right experience and academic credentials and was the unanimous choice of the search committee. The committee was composed of 13 representatives - one from Austin, four from San Antonio, and eight from Rio Grande Valley communities. González-Scarano said Fernandez's first two duties would be to identify and recruit a top team to develop the new school as well as allocate resources appropriately to best enhance all the school's missions.
Fernandez said he had a third important goal - to improve the health of the people in the Rio Grande Valley, a area notably underserved in health care compared to the rest of the state and region.
Fernandez will play a leading role in the new medical school attaining accreditation of its undergraduate medical education program by the Liaison Committee on Medical Education and of its residency programs the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education. The new university is expected to enroll its inaugural class in fall 2015 with the medical school expected to enroll its first class in fall 2016.
First year PA student Omar Doria (BS '09, MS '12) was a part of the large contingent of PA students who came to meet the dean and show their support.
Doria said the merger of the universities and the establishment of a medical school are bringing about a common goal and community toward improving access to health care in the Valley. It also will allow students to stay close to home and save money while in medical school, he said.
"We are largely underserved and don't have enough people in the medical professions. We just need to reduce diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, strokes in the Valley. We are number one in those areas which is not a good thing," he said. "This merger has brought a lot of funds and has broadened our horizons."
UT Pan American President Robert S. Nelsen, who participated in the day's meet and greets with the new dean, said it was a day dreams finally came true.
"These are the dreams of our students. You saw all those students in the white coats - the physician assistant students, the pharmacy students and there are so many others who will be finally able to go to medical school and stay in the Valley. Their dreams are coming true," he said. "we are going to have a lot more white coats here in the Valley."
Learn more about the UTRGV and new medical school creation and timeline at the Project South Texas website.